Stephen King‘s It is a wonderfully sweeping tale of what it means to be a child and what it means to leave your childhood behind, inevitably and mostly forgotten, when transforming into an adult. This very evocative tale of childhood orbits and surrounds a tale of exquisite horror, and is my favorite of the 25 or so King books I’ve read.
It story takes place in King’s old fictional haunt of Derry, Maine, and focuses on two time periods — 1957 and 1984 — where a group of friends, as children and then as adults, form a magnificent bond to battle foes both natural and supernatural. One member of this group frames the story well:
My whole pleasant life has been nothing but the eye of some storm I don’t understand.
An eye of a storm is a terrific analogy as the characters live 27 years of relative comfort and happiness, in between their childhood battle with Pennywise in 1957, and It’s return to Derry in 1984. Pennywise the Clown’s manipulation of the children (and entire town of Derry) is evocative of the much cruder Jigsaw from the Saw film series, with components of Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films.
King’s horror is, at times, quite impactful, but not in an all-encompassing way. There are certain things that I won’t quite see the same way ever again, specifically clowns, drains, balloons and spiders, but the story isn’t a horror-a-minute. It’s grotesque in fits and starts, but overwhelmingly smart, deep and emotional. King has created a suite of characters so refined, multifaceted and real, that each embodies components of being that are undeniably relatable.
Pennywise is the tool King uses to twist and squeeze the driving themes of his 1,000-page novel: growing up and growing old, memories and the changing cycles of life. His characterizations of each of the individuals and his psychological examinations of what it is to be bullied, haunted and hunted are so keen, one can’t help but consider that King has a deep well of personal experience from which to draw. In fact, much of King’s most thoughtful prose could be read as his personal eulogy to childhood.
King’s literary imagery and back-story-building expertise captures children and childhood not quite like a photograph, but like one of those cartoon books where you flip through each individual image with such speed that it appears to be moving. While your eyes see an animation, your mind still absorbs the individual images.
One of the friends thinks,
The energy you drew on so extravagantly when you were a kid, the energy you thought would never exhaust itself–that slipped away somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, to be replaced by something much duller.
And this loss of the essence of childhood is what drives Pennywise to bring back the group of friends that almost destroyed It over 25 years earlier.
Children use imagination, intuition, and have no fear of the future. They will live forever. Adults live with calculation, analysis, rationalization, and fear. In trying to figure out a plan, and how to proceed against the return of the unspeakable evil, the adults draw this conclusion:
Using intuition is a hard thing for grownups to do, and that’s the main reason I think it might be the right thing for us to do. Kids, after all, operate on it about eighty percent of the time, at least until they’re fourteen or so.
The adult Ben Hanscom reflects on his partial memories of what happened in Derry in 1957:
Maybe that’s why God made us kids first and built us close to the ground, because He knows you got to fall down a lot and bleed a lot before you learn that one simple lesson. You pay for what you get, you own what you pay for… and sooner or later whatever you own comes back home to you.
Ben and his friends return home, to Derry, to Pennywise.
I thoroughly enjoyed It, without caveat or pause. It’s long and fulfilling. And King is so good at character- and world-building, one can’t help but be drawn fully and completely into this wonderful story.
This is probably my favourite Stephen King novel. Time for a re-read!
When I finally get the courage to tackle horror, this and The Shining and The Stand are at the top of the list!